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Ninth or never

About the story

Published December 10, 2006

Surging hormones and impulsive brains make high school tough enough. Now add marijuana blunts, a Buick LeSabre, a hovering mom and a chronic toothache. Four kids. Four complicated lives. Can they survive the hardest grade?

Ninth grade is the toughest year for Florida students, with more of them retained, disciplined and dropping out than in any other grade. To find out why, St. Petersburg Times reporter Ron Matus and photographer Lara Cerri spent the 2005-06 school year at St. Petersburg's Northeast High School.

They observed more than 30 ninth-grade classrooms, interviewed scores of ninth-grade students and spent hundreds of hours with them on and off campus. In the end, they focused on two boys and two girls.

Most of the actions depicted in the story were witnessed by the reporter or photographer. A few scenes, including the one in which a student is described rolling a marijuana-filled cigar, are based on interviews. All of the reporting was supplemented by public records, including court documents, police reports and autopsy reports.

The Times obtained approval from three of the students' mothers none had fathers directly involved in their lives before spending time with them. For the fourth, the Times obtained permission from the student's grandmother, who was taking care of him under a judge's order.


Ron Matus, 37, is the Times' state education reporter. He came to the newspaper in 2002, after four years as the environmental reporter at the Gainesville Sun. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and 2-year-old son. He can be reached at


Lara Cerri, 38, joined the photo staff of the Times in 2001. Before that, she worked at the Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press and the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in St. Petersburg and volunteers in local elementary and middle school journalism programs. She can be reached at

Times education editor Barry Klein supervised and edited the story. Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to the reporting.


[Last modified December 7, 2006, 13:16:23]

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